Tag Archives: French Foreign Legion

French Guiana, Ile St Joseph and Devil’s Island (not quite my 103rd country)

The reason it is not always easy to exactly count a country visited is the varied definitions of “what’s a country”? I use an app called Visited which enables you to pin each country you’ve been to, want to go to and have lived in. They include French Guiana as a country BUT it actually remains part of France at the moment (although they are considering independence – not sure why when they can get oodles of money via the EU but still if that happens I will count it for sure:).

This visit wasn’t to the mainland but to see the three Salvation islands used for the “worst” prisoners and made famous by both Papillon and the Dreyfus Affair.

First stop was to Ile St Joseph where the prisoners who were in solitary confinement were held. This is where Papillon was said to have spent a number of years and the French Foreign legion still have an outpost here – that must be one of the least wanted postings – although no wars at least. Access to this island was by zodiac from our ship. below is what greets you on arrival and is where the FFL are based.

We then walked up stone steps to the remains of the prison areas. On the right is where they were chained to the walls while working.

And these are the cells which had walkways across the top so that the guards could regularly disturb the prisoner’s sleep. Whatever your sentence was you had to spend the same number of years on the island after release as a colonist so pretty rough and if you were sentenced to 8 plus years then you had to stay as a colonist for the rest of your life like Louis Dega (aka Dustin Hoffman) did in the movie.

All in all this was a very bleak place. I had re-watched the original (and very good) Papillon movie the night before so it really got to me. Bad and sad vibes.

We then went on to the main island which overlooks Devil’s Island where Alfred Dreyfus (incorrectly found guilty of selling secrets to the Germans) was held as a political prisoner. He was tried a second time when it was realised he’d been set up and was found guilty again (believed to be anti Semitic both times) but he received a presidential pardon so didn’t have to come back. ) Devil’s island is not accessible but can be seen in behind the non indigenous coconut palms below. More French soldiers lived here on the bigger island – hence the church and lighthouse.

A fair bit of flora and fauna can be seen on the larger island too. The highlight are the very cute capuchin monkeys who look like they are wearing jackets and the agouties (rodents who are prettier than rats!).

Not somewhere I’m likely to visit again but really interesting historically for somewhere so remote.